HILLSBOROUGH AND WITNESS STATEMENTS 2: THE EARLY MIXING OF FACT AND OPINION

The previous post in this series looked at the issues that arose when the solicitors for the police force sent out a missive asking the police officers on the ground for their “comment and impression”.  There was an immediate mixing of factual statements, comment and opinion which the police force then spent years trying to edit.  Here I want to look in detail at the consequences of that initial decision to mix factual and opinion evidence.

THE DANGEROUS MIXING  OF FACTS AND OPINION

The first task should have been to find out precisely what happened. Instead the police force received a maelstrom of views from the officers, many of them not at all favourable to the role that the police paid.

THE FIVE SIMPLE QUESTIONS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ASKED

There were five simple questions that should have been asked and recorded.

The police officers should have been asked;

  1. Where were you?
  2. What were your orders?
  3. What did you see?
  4. What did you hear?
  5. What did you do?

The answers to these simple questions would have  enabled the police force itself, and all subsequent Enquiries, to have a bedrock of facts upon which to form a view about what happened.

These statements could, and should, have been disclosed immediately (without redaction) to the investigating police force and all subsequent enquiries.

SHOULD THE OFFICERS HAVE BEEN ASKED FOR THEIR OPINIONS?

The police officers should, clearly, have been asked for their opinions as to what went wrong. The difficulty here was the immediate mixing of facts and opinion with no attempt to distinguish between two.  This led to many months (possibly years) of statements being redacted.   Again there were two simple question which should have been put.

  1. From what you saw, heard and did on the day can you state whether the police force could have done anything differently to avoid the deaths?
  2. From what you saw, heard and did on the day what, in your view, must the police force do in the future to avoid this ever happening again?

The crucial element here is that the police officers are not being asked an open-ended generic question but to give their opinions based directly on their experience rather than subsequent justification or hearsay. Again this would have rendered the evidence far more useful.

It would not be possible for a single police officer on the ground to come to an overall conclusion.  However an accurate gathering of the basic facts at the outset from first hand sources would have made the task of later investigations far simpler, speedier and more effective.

THE FAR-REACHING SIGNIFICANCE OF THE INITIAL ERROR IN COLLECTING EVIDENCE

It subsequently took over 27 years before the actual facts of the Hillsborough disaster were established.   It was the failure to establish the basic facts at the outset that led to many of the subsequent difficulties.  The police should have concentrated upon establishing the facts as a priority.  Issues of fault could come later. The major exception being the need to identify immediately steps that should be taken to prevent this being repeated. Instead months (possibly years) were spent in editing and redacting the statements received. This process, alone, played a large part in the profound difficulties that arose.

RELATED POSTS

Hillsborough

Witness statements “facts” and “opinions”.

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